IDFA's development since the festival's beginning in 1988

    On the occasion of IDFA's 25th anniversary in 2012, IDFA Daily journalist Melanie Goodfellow recorded IDFA's history. How did current events influence the festival program? And how did IDFA's professional activities develop over the years?

    1988-1992: The Russians are coming!

    Early editions of IDFA unfolded against the backdrop of the fall of Communism and the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Prize winners such as Ivars Seleckis' The Crossroad, about a down-at-heel neighbourhood in the Latvian capital of Riga, and Marina Goldovskaya's The Power of Solovki, the first Soviet film to talk about the Gulag camps, reflected the changes afoot on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

    Taking advantage of the new era of perestroika and glasnost brought in by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, festival founder Ally Derks travelled to Moscow and Saint Petersburg in search of films for the 1988 and 1989 editions. These trips resulted in a huge Soviet delegation rocking up at the festival in 1989, just weeks after the fall of Berlin Wall.

    "We selected 15 films, but the filmmakers turned up with another 40 films that had been shelved before Perestroika", remembers Derks. "We had no idea what was in these film cans, but we just opened them and showed them in the Film Museum. It was so funny, I can still see these people coming into the Balie. It was after the opening film, so everyone was already partying and drinking and then the Russian delegation came in carrying all these film cans. We thought: 'What's in the cans?' At first we feared it was food and alcohol, but it was old 35mm films!"

    1993-1997: Video firsts

    During its second five years, the festival was coming to terms with the influence video was having on documentary making. In 1993, the festival allowed works shot on video for the first time. Up until then, selection had been reserved for documentaries shot on 16mm and 35mm film only.

    The competition selection, however, would remain 100% celluloid for some time to come. "We have made a first, cautious start with the programming of video documentaries", wrote festival head Ally Derks in her preface to the 1993 catalogue. "It is an indisputable fact that, owing to the developments in technology and media, more and more filmmakers – particularly documentary filmmakers – are turning to magnetic recording and editing techniques. A phenomenon which is predominant in countries of the Third World."

    The other innovations of the period were the first IDFA Forum co-production market (then known as FORUM) held in 1993, and the Docs for Sale film market which started in 1996. The Forum's formule has been much-copied in the intervening years, but at its inception it was something very fresh and new. "It really kick-started things", comments IDFA industry chief Adriek van Nieuwenhuijzen. "It was the first time commissioners from different broadcasters got together and started looking at ways they could collaborate to make things happen."

    1998-2002: Topsy-turvy

    The Yugoslav Wars, the Middle East Conflict, the Chechen War and 9/11: just some of the world events feeding into the documentaries presented at IDFA over this period. Topical titles of the period included Sharon Shamir's Middle East-related Peace by Piece and Amos Gitai's Tapuz, Christian Frei's War Photographer, capturing James Nachtwey at work in Kosovo, and Sergei Bosenko's Chechensky Gambit.

    The attacks of September 11, 2001 reverberated across the festival that year. "The world is topsy-turvy. Everything changes. The IDFA programme as well. It is strange to notice how differently we watch films after this date", wrote festival head Ally Derks in her catalogue preface that year. "How to deal with the present?" a filmmaker friend had asked her. Her answer: "By continuing to make documentaries, which is more important and complicated now than ever."

    By that point, the festival had already started supporting the production of documentaries in developing countries through its IDFA Bertha Fund – known as the Jan Vrijman Fonds at its inception in 1998. The fund aims to stimulate and empower the creative documentary sector in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Middle East and parts of Eastern Europe by supporting innovative documentary projects by talented filmmakers from these regions.

    The festival was still digesting the implications of the attacks and the ensuing Afghanistan War in 2002, its 15th anniversary, under the What Do You Believe? selection, focusing on what drives fundamentalists of any creed with films such as Lucy Walker's Devil's Playground, Vatche Boughourjian's Noble Sacrifice and Rick Kent and Mimi George's Modern Tribalism.

    2003-2007: Road with no end

    The Middle East Conflict – marked by the Second Intifada, the Israeli siege of Bethlehem, the Battle of Jenin and the death of Yasser Arafat – continued to figure highly in the IDFA selection in the early part of this period. Talking about the Israeli docs present in 2003, such as Yoav Shamir's Checkpoint, festival chief Ally Derks wrote: "They do not point to a road map, but to a nearly hopeless situation on a road with no end."

    From 2005, the festival also started to spotlight environmental issues with the first Green Screen program, looking at the consequences of globalisation through documentaries such as Nino Kirtadze's The Pipeline Next Door and Taggart Siegel's The Real Dirt on Farmer John. Festival innovations in this period included the launch of the IDFAcademy in 2003, with masterclasses by Jørgen Leth and Ulrich Seidl.

    In 2007, the festival marked its 20th anniversary. "IDFA has come a long way", Derks says. "It was born in the small Alfa cinema on Leidseplein square. We had an audience of a few thousand, watching less than a hundred films. By now, more than a million people have watched 3,000 IDFA films in theatres."

    That year also saw the start of a new program: IDFA DocLab. Social media and smartphones were just taking off, and all around the world new forms of interactive storytelling and digital art were emerging, with documentary artists often leading the way. Since then, DocLab has developed into one of the leading platforms showcasing interactive non-fiction storytelling and documentary art.

    2008-2012: Between crisis and hope

    Financial crisis, globalization, immigration, Burma, Iran, Islamic Fundamentalism, the Arab Spring and the digital revolution were some of the key topics dominating IDFA over the past five years.

    As the global recession initially sparked by the America's subprime mortgage crisis in 2007 deepened, Erwin Wagenhofer's Let's Make Money, a timely critique of financial liberalization, played in competition in 2008. A film that could be just as timely five or ten years later...

    "As the world totters on the edge of crisis and hope, between a state of panic or a state of growth and change, are we at the end of Greed?", wrote Ally Derks in that year's festival catalogue. "One of the leitmotivs running through some excellent films this year deal with the worldwide financial picture. With money and power. From microcosm to macro-economics, films such as Erwin Wagenhofer's Let's Make Money inform us of the implications for the developed world and the relationship of the emerging nations in the crisis."